Book Review: The Philippian Fragment

Author: Calvin Miller

Date: 1982

Publisher: InterVarsity

Length: 175 pages

Illustrations: drawings and decorations by Joe DeVelasco

Quote: “He loves all men and especially those who are of the household of faith. But his preaching is a persecution of the saints.”

Calvin Miller, an innovative minister best known for his poetic rendering of the New Testament as the Singer Trilogy, turned his hand to satire in a collection of epistles allegedly written by a second-century pastor in the church at Philippi.

According to the blurb on the jacket, the story “demonstrates conclusively that in church life the more things change, the more they remain the same.” A work of satirical fiction is not exactly historical proof. There was no such person as Marcus Sparkus, who had “written thirty-two scrolls now, with such titles as The Impossible Possibility, This Way to Success, The Zeal Deal, and the ever popular You Are Numerus Unus,” before being thrown to the lions—“It left the class unsettled.” Even in the 1980s that didn’t happen, although the careers of Jim Bakker, Bob Schuller, and Pat Robertson suggested that some Christians wished it would.

History also disappoints us by failing to mention Croonus Swoonus, who “is through crooning that he ‘found his thrill on Palatine Hill’…there were numerous rumors that his singing career was about over when he had the good fortune to be born again.” Little Richard, who was bouncing in and out of churches in the 1980s, was not unique in history, but neither did he have this precise parallel in second-century Philippi.

Then there’s Hezekiah the Abominable Monster of Bythinia: “He was at the business meeting in the congregation in Cenchrea where a brother was dismissed for his views on baptism…Hezekiah…became distraught…It put such a strain on his own need to be secure he began weeping and then, of course, chewing scrolls.” Indeed, “Some say the Ghoul of Galatia” (who “lurks outside empty churches on the dark of the moon and pounces on old elders”) “is a wolf who once wore sheep’s clothing until he saw the sheep devouring each other.”

Flippant, irreverent comedy? Or wise insights into the group dynamics that cause church and Bible study groups to fall apart, with a tendency to help students laugh off their quarrels and focus on what matters? Moreover, do the characters, in their own way, tend to glorify God?

Sister Phoebe, who can’t bring herself to vote on the question of whether Jesus might be expected to return before or after the Tribulation, despite “studying furiously,” leaves a “scroll study” to visit the lepers and spends the afternoon binding lesions. Brother Coriolanus forms a grudge against Eusebius when Eusebius fails to promote Coriolanus’s daughter; he recommends that Eusebius join an order of silent monks, and when Eusebius is put in prison he’s willing to inherit Eusebius’s good clothes right away, but when he finds himself in prison too Coriolanus “no longer speaks for God but is content to seek Him.” Eusebius himself fears that he “will embarrass God running and crying before the lions.” He won’t. This fictional Eusebius can only be imagined as a sort of distant relative to the real Saint Eusebius, but if he’d been real, his famous cousin would have no reason to feel ashamed of him.

I tend to vote thumbs up on The Philippian Fragment. It’s written for college students; it addresses the questions that cause unnecessary grief to college students; its snarky tone is likely to appeal to students, and I think it steers students in the right direction. In the end I think it uplifts Christ more than it rebukes Christians, although it does both.

Unfortunately, The Philippian Fragment no longer qualifies as a Fair Trade Book, but if you send $5 per copy + $5 per package to either address at the lower left-hand corner of the screen, you can add this book to a package that includes one or more Fair Trade Books and pay only the one $5 shipping charge.

 Book review cat returns from Morguefile, after taking Thanksgiving off…
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Book Review: The Five Minute Marriage

Book Review: The Five-Minute Marriage

Author: Joan Aiken

Date: 1977

Publisher: Warner (paperback), Doubleday (hardcover)

ISBN: 0-446-89682-9

Length: 280 pages of text

Quote: “My uncle is so set on the marriage between my two cousins, that he intends to disinherit them both if the wedding does not take place before his death.”

Conrad Aiken, the well-known American poet, had two daughters who grew up in England. Neither tried to write the sort of very very serious and ambitious novels or poems their father wrote. Jane Aiken Hodges specialized in period romances; Joan Aiken (who also married) wrote a few period romances, a few ghost stories, a few murder mysteries, a few contemporary novels, a few imitations of Jane Austen, and one volume of light verse, but was best known for stories about children. Indeed a pair of children, usually a brother and a sister, always “gifted,” emotionally but not physically precocious, are a sort of trademark of her fiction; they’re in this romance too.

The most conspicuous feature of this novel is that Ms. Aiken was obviously playing with the genre. This is a Regency Romance with all the trimmings, the nice but poor girl adrift in a hard world with a mother who’s more of a burden than a protector, the handsome hero who doesn’t seem too promising at first but comes through for the heroine in the end, and all the historical details at a convenient distance from the action…but everybody, arguably including the heroine, Philadelphia or Delphie, has a given name lifted from Arthurian romance, and the hero is burdened with a family name that you’re meant to pronounce like “Pennystone” while you see it as a rude joke.

In the years to come, in her novels for Jane Austen fans, Joan Aiken would really pitch into the bizarre mix of snobbery and misogyny that seems to have complicated women’s lives at the turn of the eighteenth century. In this novel she accepts it. Delphie is obliged to marry Gareth because her uncle thinks she’s Gareth’s first cousin; she consents to the marriage on the promise that it can be dissolved easily once her uncle dies, but the plot thickens…it doesn’t have to make sense, hey? It’s a Regency Romance…Cousin Elaine may be trying to kill Delphie, Cousin Mordred overtly tries to kill Gareth, various other vague and/or illegitimate relatives complicate matters as much as possible…anyway, at the beginning Gareth and Delphie don’t like each other, at the end they do, and all the plot twists tie up in the requisite cellophane-transparent heart-shaped bow at the end.

You won’t believe it. You’re not actually meant to believe it. You’re meant to laugh, and feel relief that your own love life, however messy it may be, is surely less preposterous than Delphie’s. That you will do.

I have exactly one serious objection to this novel, apart from my feeling that editors should have insisted on spelling Gareth’s family name “Pennystone.” The objection is that, if this should happen to be the first of Joan Aiken’s books you read, you might not go on to read and appreciate the books Aiken herself seems to have taken more seriously. This is an amusing romp through the ridiculous, hardly to be compared with the mock-history series that began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, the character studies of The Girl from Paris or If I Were You, the nonstop nonsense of Arabel’s Raven, the dreamlike stories in Not What You Expected, the subtle social commentary of Morningquest, or the right-to-death eloquence of Midwinter Nightingale.

Though Joan Aiken no longer needs a dollar, readers “meeting” this writer for the first time should visit the blog about her books maintained by her heirs: Some writers’ heirs seem to prefer that the writers’ books quietly disappear and stop reminding them of what they’ve lost. Other writers’ heirs, like Walter Hooper with C.S. Lewis and, apparently, Lizza Aiken with Joan Aiken, keep the books alive for one or more generations after the writers are gone. There won’t be any more books by Joan Aiken but there are plenty of them already (she wrote more than a hundred), and many are still in print.

Anyway, to buy The Five-Minute Marriage (and other vintage Aiken books) here, send $5 per copy + $5 per package to either address in the lower left-hand corner of the screen. If you buy four books for a total of $25 that may work out to less than you’d pay some other sellers whose per-book price appears, at first, to be much lower, so shop carefully.

Morguefile book review cat:

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Book Review: Little Town at the Crossroads

Book Review: Little Town at the Crossroads

Author: Maria D. Wilkes

Author’s web site:

Date: 1997

Publisher: Harper Collins

ISBN: 0-06-440651-2

Length: 343 pages

Quote: “Before Laura Ingalls Wilder ever penned the Little House books, she wrote to her aunt Martha Quiner Carpenter, asking her to ‘tell the story of those days’ when she and Laura’s mother, Caroline, were growing up in Brookfield, Wisconsin.”

And this is the book Maria D. Wilkes made out of the story Aunt Martha told. Laura Ingalls’ mother and sister make friends with a German immigrant girl who spells English words correctly but pronounces the letters “Ah-bay-tsay-day-ay,” and so on, so she can’t be given credit in spelling bees. Laura’s Uncle Henry brings in passenger pigeons to cook into pigeon pies. Woodchucks attack the garden just in time to win the children the right to keep a dog, even though their widowed mother hasn’t felt able to afford to feed a dog. There’s a Maple Syrup Festival and an Independence Day parade.

Apart from being illustrated by Dan Andreasen rather than Garth Williams, this book is much like the original Little House books, with memories of how people used to do everyday work told as vividly as memories of special events. Elementary school readers should be able to enjoy it; if they’re interested in old crafts and old songs, they may enjoy rereading it every year.

Although there are those who think the original “Little House” series (Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, Farmer Boy, On the Banks of Plum Creek, By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, These Happy Golden Years, The First Four Years, and some would add On the Way Home, West from Home, and Young Pioneers) was sufficient unto itself, the descendants of Ma and Pa Ingalls preserved enough other family letters and souvenirs to have inspired storybooks about Laura’s mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother as little girls. A certain sense of authenticity has of course been sacrificed: these are reconstructions, not memoirs. Children, however, affirm on Amazon that the additions to the “Little House” collection others have made after Rose Wilder Lane’s lifetime are still good reads.

Maria D. Wilkes, who has outed herself as being known in real life as Maria DiVincenzo, is alive and maintains an historical research web site. Therefore Little Town at the Crossroads is a Fair Trade Book. If you buy it here, for $5 per book + $5 per package, I’ll send Wilkes or a charity of her choice $1 per book sold. That’s more than some Amazon sellers are asking, but if you order four books for a total of $25, you may be ahead financially to buy the books here–and if they’re all by Maria D. Wilkes, she or her charity will receive $4. Payments may be sent to either of the addresses in the lower left-hand corner of the screen.

Here, for Google + purposes, is our Morguefile Book Review Cat:

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